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11 Dec 2007 : Column 32WH—continued

11 Dec 2007 : Column 33WH

That is the sort of consideration that the Ministry of Defence is doubtless thinking about. I presume—the right hon. Member for Islwyn will correct me if I am wrong—that it must have been with the co-operation of the Ministry of Defence that the Malaysian Government got PJM medals into those ex-servicemen’s hands in the first place. Without that co-operation, it would have been impossible to administer the scheme whereby they got the medals. Primary consideration must therefore be given to those people—I do not know whether there are any; I invite interventions to set me right—who served in Malaysia but who for some reason did not get a medal from the British Government. If anyone falls into that category, there should not be the slightest question about their being allowed to wear the foreign decoration.

Lorely Burt: As I understand it, the majority of servicemen who sacrificed and endured during the Malaysian campaigns did not receive a medal for it. Is it not therefore the case that the double medal rule does not apply? Those men have nothing that they can wear in public that recognises their sacrifice and service.

Dr. Lewis: That is extremely helpful. I do not know how many of the people who served in that campaign received no medal or clasp at all. I invite the Minister to concentrate on that point in his reply.

That leads me happily to the fact that I am the proud possessor of a set of miniature medals given to me by the family of the famous airman Flight Lieutenant Kinkead, who is buried in my constituency. He won two distinguished service crosses, two distinguished flying crosses, a distinguished service order and a mention in dispatches between 1917 and 1919, both on the western front and in the intervention in Russia. It is relevant because among those miniature medals are two awarded by the white Russian authorities with whom he fought on detachment—unofficially, as it were, but officially—for the Royal Air Force in 1919 and 1920. Indeed, his DSO was for service in that campaign.

There is therefore a huge precedent for allowing foreign medals to be worn when the British Government have not already awarded a campaign service medal or clasp. I am surprised by the statement of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that that applies to the majority of PJM recipients. If so, the point is crucial. If not, it is still most important for the minority of people who did not receive an award from the United Kingdom.

I should declare an indirect interest. My partner’s father, Frank Souness DFC, was decorated for his service in the RAF during the Malayan campaign in 1955, and I believe that his subsequent service entitles him to the PJM. Most people will recognise that there is a distinction between those who are awarded nothing for a campaign and those who have already been recognised for it by the British Government. It is not an easy point to make. We all wish to salute the gallantry of people who risk their lives in such campaigns. I look forward to hearing the Minister clarify whether attention will be addressed, at least as a first step, to those veterans of the Malaysian campaign who received the PJM but who never received any other award for their service.

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11.36 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on securing this debate and on the excellent and entertaining manner in which he prosecuted his case. We have also heard some excellent interventions and contributions from the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who made a detailed case for a change of heart in the Government. The case is even stronger because the right hon. Member for Islwyn, as a former Defence Minister, has some inside knowledge of such matters. Having been a Minister for Veterans, he has probably seen some of the deliberations on such issues. I presume that he is not allowed to divulge them to this audience, but it strengthens the case for why the Government should reconsider.

The Malaysian campaign is often regarded as the forgotten war. Vietnam and Korea have had greater exposure, mainly through Hollywood and other film-making enterprises, but that does not mean that we should forget Malaysia. Some 35,000 troops were involved, and there were more than 100 deaths. It was a significant conflict that should be reckoned along with the rest, especially when one considers the numbers—we have 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the number in Iraq will have reduced to 2,500 by spring. It was a significant effort that the Government should recognise.

Even though it is claimed as a forgotten war, we must not forget the 35,000 veterans who served in Malaysia, including the last conscripted soldiers, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East mentioned. I concur with the right hon. Member for Islwyn—the MOD has done some good work in recent years. It has appointed a Minister for Veterans, introduced a veterans badge and veterans’ day and given veterans priority health treatment. It has done some good work, but it is in danger of throwing it all away and losing the credit that it has gained recently. We are talking about an unnecessary slight to a group of veterans who served with distinction in the Malaysian campaign more than 50 years ago, and who have been prevented from appreciating fully the Malaysian Government’s thanks on behalf of their people to the veterans who helped give them their freedom.

This is a bizarre example of British etiquette and rules getting in the way of common sense. It has all the hallmarks of a British farce. To tell 35,000 loyal ex-servicemen and women that they may accept a medal but are not permitted to wear it defies logic. The rules on double medals and events more than five years ago are waived to permit acceptance and then, paradoxically, immediately resurrected as reasons why the medal may not be worn formally. Then, after much prevarication, the establishment permits the wearing of it—but only for a few days and on the other side of the world in Malaysia. Only in Britain could that sort of thing happen.

Mr. Touhig: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who always puts a logical and powerful argument; he was very even-handed in his approach, and drew out the difficulties of both sides.

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I have been fearsome in my criticism of the HD Committee, as I have seen correspondence concerning the decision to allow our veterans to wear the medal during the 50th anniversary of Malaysian independence. In my view, the decision was taken because Commonwealth veterans would have marched in Malaysia wearing their medals and ours would not. Perhaps more important to the establishment, Her Majesty was represented at those events by His Royal Highness the Duke of York. I believe that there was concern that His Royal Highness might have been subjected to some sort of protest by British veterans if they had not been allowed to wear the medal while other Commonwealth veterans did so. The decision to allow them to wear it for that celebration was totally cynical and wholly unworthy.

Willie Rennie: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If the HD Committee is more concerned about the Duke of York’s feelings and his possible embarrassment than about the veterans, it is very sad. Perhaps it reflects the ethics of the Committee’s members.

What does it say about our relations with that foreign country—a Muslim country? As we heard, we do not have that many friends in the Muslim world, so we should not turn them away when they offer the hand of friendship. What does it say to the King of Malaysia? It is a nation of 27 million people, of whom 60 per cent. are Muslims. It is a newly industrialised country that has a long track record as a trading nation, and it is an important partner for the United Kingdom. When our veterans are offered a medal, it is very narrow minded and rather offensive for us to turn it away. I do not know how the people feel about it, nor do I know the King’s view or what he says in private, but I can imagine what it must be like. Surely our relations with that country are far more important than Britain’s medal etiquette.

What does it say to our Queen? She is put in the invidious position of allowing the medals to be worn in public by New Zealand and Australian veterans, but not our own. It puts the Queen in a very difficult position. I wonder what she says behind closed doors. We will never find out, but I wonder whether she has had a phone conversation with the King of Malaysia and is rather embarrassed by the whole episode.

I have a few questions for the Minister. Why did the Queen allow Australia and New Zealand veterans—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman should not bring the royal family into the debate.

Willie Rennie: I apologise, Mr. Martlew.

Why were New Zealand and Australian veterans allowed to accept and wear the medal, when it was denied to our own veterans? If it is not permitted to receive a medal if five years have passed, then why were veterans of the allied Arctic convoys allowed to receive and wear in public the Russian 40th anniversary of victory medal?

I am puzzled by the Government's intransigence on this issue. As has been said, we are not talking about “bling” hunters—people who have medals all over their
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uniforms—and the veterans do not want that, either. They want something that is special. The difficulty has been caused by our obsession with etiquette, rules and regulations. We should be celebrating the efforts of our servicemen, not denigrating them. We need a review of the rules so that we can take a sensible approach to the receiving and wearing of medals. I urge the Government to look again at the set-up of the HD Committee and at some of the long-established rules that govern this issue.

I pledge my support for the Daily Mirror’s “honour the brave” campaign, which has tried to secure medals and recognition for the injured and those who have passed away in Afghanistan. One of my constituents, Captain McDermid, a long-serving soldier, recently passed away there. Such people should be given recognition, in order that others know the value that our soldiers give to our country.

11.44 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on obtaining the debate and on the manner in which he introduced it. I express slight surprise at the vitriolic way in which he attacked the HD committee. At the end of the day, it operates to rules that effectively are handed down by Parliament, and it is to those rules that officials work. If we are unhappy about the committee and how it works, we need to address the way in which it is structured. I shall say a few things about that later.

It is important to establish that medals are important to servicemen and to veterans. Those of us who have not served need to discuss the matter with veterans fully to appreciate the part that medals play in service life and the way that veterans view themselves and their service. It is by no means a trivial issue, and the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) fleshed out some of the problem.

The feeling that the veterans have for their medals cannot simply be dismissed by saying, “”Well, you can wear them anyway.” People can wear whatever they want. Indeed, those involved with Remembrance day services of one sort or another, which includes most Members here, will have noticed in recent years an increase in the number of medals, emblems and badges—we heard earlier about the veterans badge—which are all worn with a great deal of pride by veterans. Some of them, of course, are officially awarded and endorsed by the HD committee; some are not. Some of them are foreign awards and decorations, and some have the status of emblems or badges; some can be bought, for not very much money, but they have no official endorsement. We need to consider the subject in that modern context.

I want to put on the record my thoughts on veterans badges. Like many innovations, one has to reserve judgment initially to see how things work out. Having presented some, and having been eligible for one myself, like my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East, I am pleased with them. They were a good innovation and a positive move, something that was appreciated and warmly welcomed by veterans. I congratulate the Government on introducing them.

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The make-up of the HD committee is curious. It has eight officials. There are representatives of the Prime Minister, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. They are senior officials. To say that there is no political input may be a little wide of the mark. Indeed, they can feed in the views of Ministers, according to a letter of 20 December 2005 sent by Mr. William Chapman, the secretary of appointments at No. 10. That is clear evidence that the committee is influenced by politicians. In considering whether the committee is fit for purpose, we need to remember that. I suspect that the right hon. Member for Islwyn, when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence, will have had some input to the HD committee through the MOD official.

In the context of a partly political committee, we need to discuss whether we should reconstitute the way in which honours and decorations are recommended to Her Majesty the Queen. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister feels that, informed by some of the issues raised in this debate, we could look again at the committee to see how it can be brought up to date.

The rules that the committee is obliged to work to are contained largely in Foreign and Commonwealth Office orders passed in 1969, which have since been updated. The first rule prohibits UK citizens from accepting or wearing a foreign award without the sovereign’s express permission. In a sense, we are making a rod for our own back, because, unusually for British law, those orders state that a person may not do something unless given permission to do so. In the context of our armed forces that is very clear: a person cannot wear any item on their uniform unless it is contained within uniform regulations.

However, this is not a debate about whether servicemen and women representing this country in uniform may wear particular awards or decorations—one would assume that they may not, unless they bear the image of the sovereign or specific permission is given. We are talking about veterans and civilians. It seems strange, particularly given the plethora of badges, medals and awards of various sorts that veterans are accustomed to wear, to forbid, in those regulations, the wearing of the PJM. That seems rather odd and a little capricious.

Mention has been made of Sir Humphrey. Although I would not accuse the committee of acting like Sir Humphrey, this situation appears somewhat Humphreyesque. Many will look on our country, perhaps from Malaysia, and ask, “What on earth are the British playing at? Why are they failing to give any official endorsement of the award of this medal?”

We heard eloquently from the right hon. Member for Islwyn and from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) about the possible effect on Malaysia. At a time when we are trying to build bridges, particularly with countries with a substantial Muslim population, it seems churlish to open ourselves up to the accusation of being unhelpful and unfriendly. The committee resides within the Foreign Office, which is why a Foreign Office Minister is replying to this debate, but we seem to be scoring a diplomatic own goal.

One of my principal concerns about the HD committee is that it appears to have been inconsistent in its judgments, which I suspect might be partly the
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result of political interference. It seems that two major rules override its considerations in this arena: double medalling and five-year retrospection. However, we have heard about the commemorative Russian 40th anniversary medal and how that event was marked by the British war medal. More specifically we might consider the Malta 50th anniversary commemorative medal, which is similar, but covered directly by the British Africa star.

The committee’s determinations appear to be inconsistent, and although the rules that govern it suggest that it is not necessarily a problem that precedent does not guide or dictate future decisions, if we do not rely on precedent, I am afraid that we are likely to fall into the trap of randomness that gives rise to a sense of injustice on the part of veterans when they find that their medal has not been officially endorsed. That endorsement is important to veterans, for reasons pointed out by the hon. Member for Romsey. They are ex-servicemen, accustomed to abiding by rules, and they feel uncomfortable if approval is not given to what they did, particularly when that concerns medals.

The rules, which state that one may not wear a medal unless it has been officially approved, are standing in the way of common sense. It might be far more helpful to replace those rules with a more permissive line that might run: “UK citizens may wear awards from foreign powers at their discretion unless they are requested not to.” That would get the Government and the HD committee out of the fix in which they unwittingly find themselves. It would be a sensible way forward.

The sovereign must remain the fount of all honour. That lies at the heart of the matter and is the bedrock of the work of the HD committee. However, those strange little rules generated in 1969 are standing in the way of what, to most of us—including friends and allies abroad who have approved this medal—appears to be common sense. However, just because New Zealand and Australia approve of its wearing, we are not necessarily bound to follow suit. As I understand it, approval was given to wear the medal by Her Majesty following recommendations made to her as Head of State of those countries. She cannot be bound to make the same determination in respect of the United Kingdom.

To use the vernacular, I am arguing for some “chilling out” on medals to avoid the blind alley down which the HD committee has been forced, by virtue of the 1969 Foreign and Commonwealth orders and regulations, which have been so unnecessarily proscriptive and caused so much unhappiness, bewilderment and misunderstanding, and which, I suspect, have had diplomatic consequences in respect of the PJM.

11.57 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important subject. I welcome his close interest in it. In my opinion, he was one of the best Veterans Ministers, and I congratulate him on the work that he did during his tenure of that post and on the commitment that he has shown to veterans ever since.

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My right hon. Friend seldom makes Ministers’ lives trouble-free and harmonious, and he certainly has not done so in this debate. As he pointed out, I have been in great difficulties many times—as a climber, on the great north walls of the Alps, and as a swimmer I have swum too far out to sea. I also got into difficulties on picket lines outside power stations and pits a quarter of a century ago. I have been in grave difficulties in this place many times, as well. However, this is the most difficult case I have had to argue against—I am not sure that I am up to it really.

I know only too well that debating Chambers in the Palace of Westminster can be very inhospitable for Ministers. Indeed, my right hon. Friend and hon. Members have contributed in a fine way to the debate, and I find myself confronting as effective a resistance to the continuation of established Government policy as I have faced on any issue. It is very difficult to construct an argument that resists their case in defence of servicemen being allowed to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal alongside other awards that they may have won for courage and tenacity displayed in circumstances far more dangerous than any climbing route, swimming adventure, picket line or, indeed, Dispatch Box that a Minister might stand next to.

Let us remind ourselves that it is a great testimony to our veterans that His Majesty the King of Malaysia, the Malaysian Government and people wanted to honour them with that medal. The veterans played a valorous role supporting Malaysia—Malaya, as it then was—in its early days. Our veterans provided the support that the Malayans so desperately needed in the 1950s and early 1960s, and it was only a short time before some were back there supporting the newly independent Malaysia in her armed conflict with Indonesia, which ended finally in 1966.

In the past 50 years since Malaysia’s independence, our bilateral relations have gone from strength to strength. We have extensive and positive links on a range of issues, from education and climate change to sustainable development and defence. We have a shared history and culture, and many Malaysians have developed extensive links with the United Kingdom. I am delighted that His Royal Highness the Duke of York represented the United Kingdom at Malaysia’s celebrations of its half century of independence in August this year.

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